According to Greek legend, Prometheus stole a spark from the fire on Mount Olympus and hid it in the stalk of a fennel. Prometheus, of course, was the poor fellow who was chained up by the gods for the crime of stealing fire for mankind. Every day a vulture ate his liver and every night it grew back again. Make of this legend what you will (it is supposed to parallel the Christian legend of the Garden of Eden concerning the emergence of consciousness) but it’s possibly why even today it’s considered gauche to serve fennel with liver. But fennel is fabulous with fish.
The herb’s Latin botanical name, Foeniculum, means “hay" because the plant was used as a fodder crop for goats to improve the quality and fat content of their milk.
Fennel is a perennial in zones 5-10 and should always be planted on the north side of your garden as it can grow to four to six feet and will shade your other plants. Also do not plant fennel close to bush beans, caraway, tomatoes or kohlrabi as they don’t like each other. Certain herbs, particularly coriander, will also hinder seed development in fennel, which prefers a humus-rich, well-drained soil in full sun. The type of soil will affect the color of fennel’s foliage. In poor, sandy soils the fronds will tend to be yellow-green. In rich clay soils they will be a dark blue-green. The most popular variety grown for its leaves is Sweet Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare dulce). A sub-variety known as Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare dulce ‘Rubrum’) is grown for its very elegant bronze-red, lacy foliage, but its leaves can be used in the kitchen just like those of Sweet Fennel. Florence Fennel, which is usually grown as an annual, develops a bulbous root. With its subtle anise flavor the root can be served as a crisp raw vegetable sliced into salads, or baked or sautéed and served with chicken or fish dishes.
Medicinally, fennel seeds relieve stomach bloating and gas, which is why they are frequently served after dinner in some Asian restaurants. The herb also makes an effective breath sweetener after dining. Fennel is a diuretic and herbalists recommend it for urinary problems, including cystitis and kidney stones.
Fennel is safe for children and, as an infusion or syrup, can be given for colic and painful teething in babies.
For culinary purposes the whole fennel plant may be used; the fronds, the stalk, the bulb and the seeds. When serving rice with fish I sometimes cut up some fronds and add them to the rice while cooking. The stalk and bulb can be sliced and served raw in a salad, sautéed or added to a stew or casserole. The distinctive anise flavor of fennel is more pronounced when raw. Cooking subdues it.
Fennel root will sometimes be called anise root in a grocery store. A Mediterranean grocery store may even refer to it by its Italian name, “Finocchio".
There’s nothing like a hearty stew to assuage the slings and arrows of inclement winter weather. Try the following with some fresh home-baked bread and a nice crisp, dry white wine. If fresh lingcod isn’t available almost any fish, even shellfish, will make a reasonable substitute. This recipe will serve four.
Fish Favors Fennel for Four
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large red onion, chopped
2 large fennel bulbs, chopped (keep the fronds as a garnish)
1 tsp. sea salt, 6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tsp. fennel seeds, crushed
1 tsp. fresh rosemary or half tsp. dried
½ cup of dry white wine
¼ tsp. cayenne (optional)
Zest from 1 lemon
8 small potatoes cut into bite size pieces
1 can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 cups of clam juice
1 lb. Lingcod or substitute cut into bite size pieces
Salt and pepper to taste.
In a large, non-reactive pot, heat the oil and sauté the onion and fennel until soft. Add the garlic, fennel seed and rosemary. Raise the heat to medium high, add the wine, the cayenne, lemon zest, potatoes, tomatoes and clam juice. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes. Add the fish to the stew and cook until tender, about five or 10 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. If the stew is too heavy in taste or consistency, add some more wine or water. A tasty side dish for a chicken or meat roast can be made of the following: Fennel Side Dish
2 medium-large fennel roots, sliced into quarters
12-15 mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed, but left whole
1 green pepper, sliced into half-inch strips
1 red pepper, sliced into half-inch strips
1 yellow pepper, sliced into half-inch strips
Surround the roast with the above vegetables for the last hour of cooking time.
Bruce Burnett is an award-winning writer, a chartered herbalist and author of HerbWise: growing cooking wellbeing. Bruce and his wife Delaine own Olivia’s Fashion, Furnishings & Gifts (http://www.olivias.ca/ ) in Ladysmith, BC Canada. Read more published articles by Bruce Burnett on his websites: http://www.bruceburnett.ca/ and http://www.herbalcuisine.com/